from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #7: New and Somewhat Improved Introduction

with 6 comments

It took a little longer than expected and it’s still a work in progress, but here’s the second draft of my introduction. The second half was edited half-assed and is, therefore, incomplete. Here’s hoping for a Sir Mix-A-Lot (full-assed) final draft by Buddha’s birthday.

Introduction

It has been four years and I still have recurring nightmares. Time may heal all wounds, but what if the experience was not so much a wound as a condition, an affliction, or a nightmare?

The nightmare I wake up from begins in a dark, concrete stairwell. The kind of stairwell I imagine you could find only in the slums, in an area reeking of neglect and abandon. It’s crumbling and dank and menacing and voracious. Voracious in the way that it swallows all traces of light, creating a darkness that is thick and impermeable, almost tangible. Of course, there is a little light—who can say they have dreamt a dream with no images?—but it is a small window of muted brightness directly in front of me that rocks from side to side with each careful, ascending step, as if a 30-watt light bulb hangs from some strange contraption attached to the top of my head. I tend not to experience feelings of any kind in my dreams, but there is an undeniably ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, gnawing its way out of my stomach.

I reach the top only to find my way barred by a wrought-iron gate. The same darkness permeates the corridor behind the gate, but I can vaguely make out the movement of many shadowed figures. Their movement is perceptible only as shifting masses of different degrees of darkness. I stand and wait before the gate, and one of these figures approaches and peers out at me, through the bars, with a single, seemingly disembodied eye—too white in contrast to, well, everything else—and then a brusque voice. “Report to the second floor.”

The next moment I am on the second floor.

The second floor is one narrow room which stretches out into the distance, everything tinged a sickly orangish-yellow by the incandescent lighting. Expressionless, rigid young men in orange sweatsuits sit Indian-style in flawlessly straight rows at the edges of the raised platforms on either side of me. They are like a Greek colonnade—static, stoic, unmoving, frozen in time. As I walk down the line of living(?) busts, I look down and see that I, too, am wearing the same bright orange sweatsuit, but it isn’t yangho; it isn’t in order. I can’t put my finger on why it’s not, but it worries me. I find a break in the row on my right, apparently left empty for me, and am putting down my bag in front of my cubby when an elderly Asian man with leathery, wrinkled skin and a stern countenance—an officer, his authority accentuated by the brass on his hat and lapels—storms down the line over to me.

“What is the problem, private?”

I stutter and stumble over my words. “I… I… I’m not supposed to be here, sir.” God, even in my dreams, I have a speech impediment.

No, not only am I not supposed to be here, what the hell am I doing here again? I wasn’t supposed to have been here the first time around. I try to ask, I earnestly want to try, but between my linguistic incontinence and his overbearing barking and browbeating, all I can do is helplessly wonder, Why?

When I wake, the covers are a crumpled mess at my feet and my shirt is cold and damp with sweat. My heart, my poor heart, is racing so fast I can see the palpitations in my chest and heart it ringing in my ears. Exhausted and still prostrate, I scan my room over and over, neurotically, stricken with terrifying paranoia, confirming every little detail, confirming that I am indeed awake and alone and free. It takes me longer than is warranted because I am careful, because I have been deceived before. Because, six years ago, the nightmare wasn’t one I woke up from, it was one I woke up to.

On my first night and too many a subsequent night over the course of those two years, I laid there in my musty, olive-green sleeping bag and stared up at the little holes in the plastered tiles of the ceiling, little black stars in an off-white, scummy sky, thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The microcosm of my existence, my nightmare, was my own. None of the other twenty-two men sleeping around me, packed in tight like sardines, shared my experience. None of the other six-hundred-thousand in the service shared it, for that matter. For me, here was Oz, a land of absurdity and impossibility. It was a land of tyrants and tormentors, trials and tribulations, and short men clad in green. Along my journey, I came across the heartless, the brainless, and the gutless, but none were decent companions. I walked that path alone, and the entire time, I wanted nothing save to go home. I am an American and here was the Korean Army.

The Korean Army is nothing like the U.S. Army. North Korea has gulags, the South has its army. Many times throughout the experience, beginning with my very first journal entry, I compared my situation to an unjust imprisonment: an innocent man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

How else could I describe my experience? Imagine a deaf-mute thrown into prison for two full years. His fellow inmates pick on him, the guards pick on him, even the damn warden picks on him, and he has no idea what is going on. They don’t get bored of it and they don’t leave him alone.

It’s not a common occurrence. To my knowledge, I’m the only one. I’ve heard that there have been others in my circumstance, but there has never been any substantiation and not for lack of trying. They remain as urban legends, vague accounts of a friend of a friend as I’m sure my story has been to others. Even now, my story will be met with an occasional, “Oh, you’re that guy.” Although I admit that there have been a few occasions in which I actually enjoyed recounting my experiences, more often than not I am inclined to keep this experience to myself. The decision is often based on whether I think the conversation will take a turn toward the annoying.

Why is that people have this strange need to find meaning in tragedy? The fact of life is that shit happens. Among Korean men, military service is accepted for what it is, shigan nangbi, a waste of time, or a gongbaek, a blank space, a period of nothingness in one’s life. There really is not much to be learned from the army. The problem I have is when people try to find meaning in my experience for me.

“At least you learned how to speak Korean,” some weakly offer, not realizing the ignorance of their statement. As if a language ability marginally useful to me back home in Seattle could justify the degradation and servitude, could erase the madness and frustration and desperation of those two long years. There are other, safer, saner ways to learn a language. The main reason I chose to stay in Korea to study after my ETS was not in an attempt to soul search and find meaning but to pick up the pieces and make meaning.

I understand they are merely making an attempt at sympathy, but I believe that certain things are better left unsaid. Statements about another door opening or divine plans for my life do nothing but irk me. Honestly, I cannot understand why someone in their right mind would think such attempts qualify as comforting. I would much rather have had the speaker express themselves materially, by paying for dinner and drinks.

Can a question be rhetorical if it is never vocalized? The question—“What am I doing here?”—wasn’t a question asked in expectation of an answer. It was more an expression of dumbfoundedness. The fact of the matter is that I accept that those two years are lost to me, a big blank in my personal history. I went to sleep at the beginning of January 2004 and the next thing I knew, it was 2006. Like Rip van Winkle, but having dreamt a lot of strange dreams. In the dream that took place in Afghanistan, 25 miles outside of Kabul, I had a kind of St. Francis of Assisi moment, deciding that I would only regret the things I have control over and only as long as I have control over them.

I am the protagonist of the story but a very unlikely one, an anti-protagonist who is innately passive, complacent, and emotionally stunted, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim or Camus’ Mersault. I might as well have been abducted by aliens or imprisoned in a French African prison. Instead, I was to serve in the military of a foreign country which has technically been at war for the last 60 years. So it goes.

This is not an inspirational tale of growth or courage in the face of harrowing circumstances. More than a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit, it is a story of an average Joe, a product of a generation that is too lazy to even name itself, thrust into a uniquely odd experience and how he came out the other end in one piece, physically and mentally. Being, by nature, both lazy and cowardly, my modus operandi is to opt for the road well-traveled and least-resistant and to escape from reality by daydreaming. At least I have control over my daydreams.

I was asked the other day a good question, “Why are you writing this book?” That is what I call any question for which I have no answer, a good question. The honest answer is that I don’t remember. I must have had a reason five years ago, when I started writing this book, but it has been long since forgotten. It may have been because I was just tired of sharing the story. There was a time when I thought of making a card explaining my handicap while I was in the army and answering frequently asked questions afterward. Or maybe it was because, of all the questions I was asked, nobody asked me about what I wanted to share. Perhaps I have been influenced by my experience more than I will admit. In Korea, people say there are three topics that Korean women abhor—the Army, soccer, and playing soccer in the Army—because stories are readily volunteered, regardless of the listener’s wishes. Or maybe I was just bored—I started writing while I was in the service.

In any case, I’ll leave it for you, the reader, to take whatever you can. I guess it’s my art school background. Put random images together and let the observer come up with their own interpretation. For myself, it is simple. I have a story to tell and that’s what stories are meant for, to be told.

Each chapter is titled as a lesson, but to refer to them as such is a strained analogy. There are a few legitimate lessons, but for the most part, it is simply a device applied to recount my experiences thematically. Because to give a day-by-day or even month-by-month account would be an excruciating read. Nothing happens in a black hole. Every day is like the day before and the day after. There is no concept of time in a void.

One benefit of writing in terms of themes is because of my faulty memory. During those two years, I tried my best to forget, and it’s a hard habit to break.

Memoria praeteritorum bonorum. There has been research which has proven this to be true, that the past is often remembered to be better than it actually was. One study proved that humans are wired to fondly reminisce about painful Disneyworld experiences despite the absurdly long lines in the hot summer sun and the constant complaining of tired and fussy children. In the army, there were some comrades who had boldly and foolishly asserted that they wouldn’t mind going through the service again if they had to. Even sabotaged by faulty neurons, I could never make the same assertions. Bonorum indeed.

It has also been proven that bad memories remain more vivid in our memory than the good. Luckily, the universe has endowed me with a horrendous memory faculty, and what a blessed endowment it is! If I had not written almost daily in my journals out of loneliness and boredom, I would not have been able to finish this book. Poring through my journals, I relive every memory. Some say that in order to purge yourself of traumatic experiences, you have to come face to face with them. It may be therapeutic, but it still gives me nightmares.

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Written by Young

May 2, 2010 at 9:52 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian

    encaceacich

    May 22, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    • Christian,

      Thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it.
      Cheers.

      Holden

      holdenbeck

      May 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm

  2. Memoria praetoritorum bonorum? Memories of judges go to the good? Excuse my poor Latin translation XD. Is the Korean Army really that bad? I find myself in a similar predicament I guess. Although I’ve lived in California all my life I am somehow expected to go to the Korean military because I was born in Seoul. I really don’t want to serve and although I’m almost 18 now, due to some bizarre legal mishaps, I am still years away from citizenship. Is there any way for me to get out of this “obligation”?

    Jack

    May 24, 2010 at 5:23 am

    • Jack,

      Damn, you’re not even 18 and you can translate Latin? I found it through my most helpful friend, Wikipedia.

      To answer your question, yes, the Korean Army is really that bad. Granted, not everyone shares my sentiment, but I love to gripe about the Army. (Perhaps that’s why I decided to stay here afterwards.) Even Koreans that lived here all their lives don’t want to go. But I hear it’s getting better.

      The best way to avoid the service is just wait until you get your (American) citizenship before coming here. If you gain another country’s citizenship, you can cancel your Korean citizenship. I had both at birth and therefore couldn’t cancel mine.

      If you really want to risk the trip (I would strongly advise against it), make sure the legal name on your passport is not in Korean and that there is no way for the government to link your American name and your Korean name. Again, it’s not worth the risk. Two years may not seem like a very long time, but time crawls at a snail’s pace in the Army.

      Holden

      holdenbeck

      May 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm

      • Thanks for the advice. I guess I’m going to need every little bit I can get. From what I’m reading it looks like you’re trying to get this blog published. If so, I guess I should contribute my two cents – you used the wrong Latin word. It should be praeteritorum instead of praetoritorum. The former means of the past while the latter would be a combination of the word judge and go. Hope everything works out for you 🙂

        Jack

        May 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  3. Jack,

    Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I had written it down wrong and probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

    I’m not planning to publish this blog, but the excerpt in this posting is from the book I am working on right now.

    Thanks again.

    Holden

    holdenbeck

    May 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm


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